Chinese artist and filmmaker, Yang Fudong’s latest piece is a feature-length film to be screened on the 110-metre wide façade of Asia’s first global museum of contemporary visual culture, M+ Museum. Taking Hong Kong’s urban ambience as its soundtrack, the film finds the beauty in the bustle of the city’s streetcorners. In textural greyscale, Fudong aligns the natural and the architecturally sublime, finding the intersection between our internal emotions and external realities and uncovering emotional ambiguities on a colossal scale.
Yang Fudong (b. 1971) was born in Beijing and now lives and works in Shanghai. He works across a wide range of mediums including photography, film, painting and installation. His film and video works are recognisable for their often black and white dreamlike qualities that confuse time by collapsing the past in the present. They explore notions of ephemeral identity as his subjects are positioned between fact and fiction, myth and reality. In Sparrow on the Sea, that dreamlike quality is likewise invoked by the fusion of Fudong’s filmic art and Hong Kong’s urban reality, transporting the viewer to an otherworldly realm.
Sparrow on the Sea will be screened on the M+ Museum façade every night until 14 June 2024, in collaboration with Art Basel, a global art fair and platform connecting collectors, galleries and artists globally. M+ Museum is situated in the Hong Kong’s vibrant emerging cultural quarter, West Kowloon Cultural District, and is one of the largest museums of contemporary art and visual culture in the world.
To begin, could you tell us about the evolution of your artistic practice? I understand you are traditionally trained in oil painting, but now primarily work in film. What prompted this change of direction? Do you find yourself more inspired by filmmakers or traditional artists?
In the process of engaging with contemporary art, I have got a lot of inspiration and developed many different ways of thinking. Over the years, people, conversations, changes in the environment, and various other things have influenced my perceptions and thought processes. All these factors shape my creative ideas and thoughts at a particular time.
You primarily shoot in black and white, why were you drawn to that again for this project? Is it symbolic of any thematic contrast?
Most of my works contain black and white images as I really like its texture and it gives me a better sense of time and space.
Your films lack any traditional narrative structure, described in the past as closer to paintings than films. However, is there any symbolic narrative or story you had in mind for Sparrow on the Sea?
I haven't ever planned out the trajectory of my creations from the earliest to the most recent works. They are like a plant that grows organically and steadily. It is this natural growth and development that allows me to gradually take root and bear fruit on my path of creation.
In my recent works, including the new film Sparrow on the Sea, different periods of time allow for different reflections and perspectives. As I grow older, I have started to contemplate how time influences one’s dreams and ideals, as well as how societal and personal life intertwine. These inner and outer worlds do not exist independently, but influence and communicate with each other.
I think this entwined feeling is like a film in one’s heart, where the imagination is both clear and vague. Sometimes, my inner emotions are vividly clear, but are difficult to articulate precisely. Within this interplay of ambiguity and clarity, there are many things worth thinking about.
Could you tell us what the title means and where it came from?
It is about a sparrow questioning whether it has the courage to fly across the sea. Sometimes when a little bird faces the vast sea, it would find it difficult to take off. If the bird faces the vastness of the sea and has the courage to try, it would be lovely.
It has been described as a short poem. Could you explain how the film fits into this description?
When I was in school, my teacher said, “Art is rooted in life. Time is always with you and time also leaves you.” Regardless of age, whether you are young or old, each individual can live their own wonderful life.
Sparrow in the Sea is presented on the M+ façade, so naturally it is explicitly situated within the culture and community of Hong Kong. How did the city and its culture inspire or influence the film?
When I was in university, I had a strong passion for Hong Kong movies, music and books, especially martial arts novels, which were very popular in mainland China and gave me a sense of familiarity. From my memories of growing up and from past experiences, I am impressed by many aspects of Hong Kong. As time goes by, I have visited Hong Kong frequently for exhibitions and events, which makes me realise that Hong Kong is such a diverse and international city—it’s like a window to the world. Many films by Hong Kong directors have had a profound emotional impact on me and have created lasting memories: Wong Kar-Wai's Days of Being Wild, John Woo's A Better Tomorrow, and Stephen Chow's performances in A Chinese Odyssey and Kung Fu Hustle. A Chinese Odyssey, in particular, had a significant influence on college students at the time. I believe that the beauty conveyed in these remarkable works not only influenced me personally, but also our generation.
I also remember the renowned photographer Fan Ho capturing the unique texture of Hong Kong with his distinctive black and white aesthetics and dramatic use of light and shadow. Therefore, during the filming [of Sparrow on the Sea], I shared Fan Ho's works with my film crew. Sometimes, we need to learn from and pay homage to the masters.
When shooting this work in Hong Kong, I discovered that this city is incredibly beautiful and perfect for filmmaking because it has mountains, water, and the sea, combined with modern urban architecture, creating a unique urban forest atmosphere. The tall buildings and old structures form a fascinating space.
Did you approach this film differently to previous works because you knew it was to be presented on a 65-metre tall by 110-metre wide façade? How did this scale change the creative process?
I had an early discussion with Ulanda Blair, Curator, Moving Image, M+ about the Sparrow on the Sea project. We explored the idea of how it might be more interesting to produce the film in Hong Kong, as I believe establishing a connection with the city would add to its appeal. The artwork itself is presented on the large façade of the M+ building. I decided to make a one-hour film for the M+ façade, and not to change the film length, so it’s like a standard feature film. It plays quietly on the façade without any sound. The entire city of Hong Kong, along with the surrounding sounds of roads, cars, the sea, ferries, boats, and so on, becomes the film’s soundtrack or in-built audio. The screening lasts for four months, from 7pm to 9pm every evening, and the film's soundscape evolves alongside the changing sounds of Hong Kong within this timeframe. So, in a way, it becomes a four-month moving image or a novel that can be read in one's mind.
The film draws on both natural and urban landscapes. What is the link between the natural and the urban?
Sometimes buildings are just like people, living and breathing, but it depends on how you understand and see them. Although a city’s buildings are merely structures, they have a sense of vibrancy and vitality. To me, some buildings have their own life, and some are drawn from our own imagination. Buildings and people make up a city, and their relationship is a kind of flow of time that carries emotions connecting everything.
When shooting the work in Hong Kong, I discovered that the city possesses an elegant beauty that is hidden. In crowded modern streets like Hollywood Road, whether it's daytime or nighttime, there is always an unexpected turn where you will find something interesting, some distinct features that capture your attention. I find Hong Kong's street corners very beautiful, not just the seaside areas like Repulse Bay and Shek O village. In these bustling places, when you casually turn around, you may notice something interesting. These corners represent the urban life and are incredibly pleasant and beautiful.
Could you describe how the role of the audience impacts the art piece?
The city’s ambient sounds—of sea water, boats, cars, people, buildings—all become the soundtrack or the music of the work. Each viewer can have their own unique experience combining the sound that they hear in this city and the visual they see from the work. The viewing experience changes as time goes by. It is an architectural film, an open-ended public film to be appreciated in one’s heart.
Since your earlier days, the production teams on your films have significantly extended, something you displayed in your 2018 Dawn Breaking project which documents the film throughout its making. Why do you tend to work with a large team?
The size of production team differs, depending on the creative concept. Sometimes we need to work with a large team, sometimes two to three people will suffice. I would say the professionalism of the team members are what’s most important.
How do you see your role within that team? Do you see yourself like a traditional director or something else, and what does that entail?
Cooperation within the team is of utmost importance. Each director or artist may have their own unique working approach, but the key is to work cohesively, to be inclusive and to understand one another. The artwork creation relies heavily on the great support from the team.
You have been described as “one of China’s most important contemporary artists”. How do you feel about this label?
I am flattered. I am just an ordinary artist.
Is there any artistic venture you haven’t pursued that you’d like to explore in future projects?
I would like to create many more works in the future, but considering my age, I might have to work within my competence!